This is an infamous quote from the venerated author and screenplay writer, William Goldman. It was directed at the entertainment industry referencing how hard it is to make a hit movie. But it has come to mind several times as we continue to navigate through the pandemic and try to figure out how our company will work moving forward.
Choozle is fortunate to have a great office space in the River North neighborhood in Denver, CO. We have room for up to 100 employees in our vibrant space — amazing views, beautiful workspaces, and yes, kombucha and cold brew on tap. Two days ago, we had a bustling full house — meeting rooms were full, team lunches were had together, and there was a constant buzz of conversation and collaboration.
Today is an “off” day in the Choozle office, meaning team members have the ability to work from home — and the silence is almost as loud as the prior buzz of the full office. Things are still progressing, teams and individuals are pushing ahead. But it’s different — not really sure if it’s better or worse at this point. I have some beliefs, but truly “nobody knows anything” for certain.
And such is the current atmosphere of the modern “hybrid” work environment here in the late summer of 2021. It’s an ongoing exercise in experimentation with a goal of finding balance amidst the uncertainty of multiple constantly evolving conditions.
Like most businesses, we sent everyone home in early March 2020 — with no real idea if the situation would last days, weeks, or even months. The early camaraderie and enthusiasm for virtual meetings, all-hands, and even happy hours was remarkable — and seems quite quaint looking back at this point. And that early uncertain momentum eventually evolved into a standard WFH environment for everyone. The energy was replaced by predictability I suppose.
I recall being on video meetings with other CEOs that spring of 2020 who were already talking about getting back to the office — as they had seen a drop in productivity. Fortunately, I did not share their efficiency concerns — but even then, my gut said we’ll need to figure out how to get back to the office in some form or function when it was objectively safe. Part of that desire was selfish — I love being around my team. I love seeing people make connections — the spontaneous conversations between folks that drive creativity. I love being able to grab someone to discuss a problem or idea quickly. I love seeing people from different teams share a bite at lunchtime. This is the Energy that’s hard to label or clearly define – but certainly harder to capture when working virtually.
Productivity aside, you could see the nature of work changing very quickly in a remote-first environment. In a sense, the workplace became the latest conquest of the irreversible digitization of our modern society. In-person meetings became Zooms. Conversations became Slack threads. Collaboration became asynchronous comments in Google Docs. Relationships became less about the personal connections we created and more about the roles we fulfilled in each other’s workdays.
The imposed WFH construct definitely afforded team members unprecedented freedom and flexibility (pandemic restrictions aside). I too enjoyed the ability to take the dog for a walk while on a call, slipping out to pick up kids from school, and less time behind the steering wheel. Despite these freedoms, I still felt like I was missing something — like our team was missing something. Certainly, this massive structural change would have other repercussions, right?
Not unlike many other companies, Choozle had a record turnover in the first half of 2021. The desire for change, rapidly rising tech wages, and a physical disconnect created a perfect storm, in my opinion. Additionally, I think our culture really suffered in the 15 or so months when we all primarily worked remotely. An amazing place to work became simply a job — and it’s certainly easier to part ways via slack versus sitting down with your manager and your team. But turnover is just one symptom of a change in culture.
Taking it upstream, I believe culture has a true impact on the products and services delivered by any company. At Choozle, we aim to delight our clients with every touchpoint — whether it be the UI of our campaign planning tool or a quick conversation with an account manager. To provide a consistently positive experience to our clients, we need team members who believe in and care about their work. Thus, to provide a great product, we need an amazing team. To attract and retain amazing people, a company needs to have a strong and authentic culture that ultimately aligns the work toward shared values and goals.
And I believe that our Choozle culture is partially supported by team members that want to see each other, that want to collaborate, that want to build authentic relationships inside and outside of work. I see a true throughline between the Energy of in-person work and its effects on being a great place to work — to flourishing as a sustainably great company.
Thus, I was resolved to experiment with something that would help us regain the Energy of in-person work while maintaining the flexibility of WFH. So after the 4th of July, we started officially on a hybrid schedule which had most of our Denver-based employees back in the office two days a week (after establishing full vaccination requirements to work from our Denver HQ). For many of them, it was the first time they had ever seen our offices.
The first week back felt like the first day of school. There were equal parts of excitement mixed with anxiety. Everyone is getting the muscle memory back of balancing their work with the spontaneity of being in a space with 70 other people. Certainly, some personality types will thrive more than others in a high-energy workplace.
Each of us has made adjustments to make in-person work happen — and we will continue to be flexible, especially for those with long commutes or juggling childcare, etc. But I believe the collective return will be incredibly positive. The advantages and efficiencies of onboarding new employees are real. I also quickly realized how much more creative in-person meetings were (I think the default for Zoom meetings is often to “check the box” and move on to the next Zoom). And it’s simply heartwarming to see team members build “3-dimensional” relationships. Jumping into an impromptu whiteboard session. Having snacks together. Going for walks, grabbing a beer after work. The culture of Choozle is crafted in the smaller moments of connection we find when we share the same space.
I certainly have my biases as the leader here at Choozle, but I firmly believe we are better off experimenting with a hybrid work environment. We always strive to hire great people, not just great workers. I think great people want to be around each other – even if less often than before. And we will continue to be flexible, with the health and safety of our team as the number one priority — especially with the Delta variant currently bearing down.
Slowly we are starting to rebuild a new and different culture together. I know we will never regain the unique culture of our early days, but it’s my hope that Choozle again becomes more than just a job for most — a place to build professional and personal relationships that last a lifetime.
It’s hard to predict anything in this incredibly uncertain time — truly “nobody knows anything.” But in the absence of pure knowledge, I will predict that the best companies will continue to focus on a hybrid work environment with continual adaptation and evolution that balances the irreplaceable Energy of the physical workspace with the freedom and flexibility of WFH. This approach respects and trusts the team members to “GSD” — no matter where they work — but also provides the in-person engagement that defines the unique culture for respective companies.
Today — I’m enjoying the silence of our office space as most people WFH. But I can’t wait for next Tuesday to surf the Energy of a full house. Find the balance…and enjoy it.
About the author:
A seasoned digital media entrepreneur, Andrew Fischer is the CEO and Co-Founder of Choozle, the leading self-service programmatic digital marketing platform which now powers media execution for over 800+ global advertisers. Prior to Choozle, Andrew co-founded and built the RGM Alliance, a premium focused online advertising network that reaches over 120 MM consumers in the US. Andrew holds a BA in Economics from Vanderbilt, and an MBA from UCLA’s Anderson School of Business.